January 21, 2019

This year’s Genesis Prize recognizes the importance of accessibility for people with disabilities

Itzhak Perlman’s red carpet entrance may be different than most celebrity entrances, but that does not mean it should be any less respected.

During the June 22nd press conference in Jerusalem, which honored Perlman as the recipient of this year’s Genesis Prize, he steered his wheelchair up a ramp and onto the stage, in front of an excited, cheering crowd.

The Genesis Prize honors an outstanding individual who has made extraordinary professional achievements in his or her field, while progressing humankind and serving as a role model of Jewish values for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.  Perlman, a world-renowned Israel-American violinist, was this year’s Genesis awardee. Perlman was born in Tel Aviv in 1945 and has dealt with disability and its social and physical consequences since the age of four, when he contracted polio.

Perlman spoke at the conference about his connection to Israel, his birthplace, and about his passions, namely, classical music and addressing the barriers that people with physical disabilities encounter. Perlman spoke about the physical barriers he has met, including inability to have access to public spaces, concert halls, theaters, parks, and so on. “It is a problem in the United States, where I live. For instance, in the major synagogue in New York does not have real proper access for people with limited mobility. And it is certainly an issue in Israel. Much of the infrastructure here was built before access for people with limited ability was a standard”.

The Genesis Prize awards winners one million dollars, and encourages the winners to re-gift the prize money into causes about which they care. This year, Israeli business mogul, Roman Abramovich, has doubled the award. Perlman plans to gift his prize money to “developing high class teaching [of classical music], growing musical talent in Israel, and towards initiatives in support of Jewish culture”

In addition to the ceremony and press conference that highlighted the importance of eliminating barriers for people with disabilities, the Knesset also held a special event that discussed the significance of integrating persons with disabilities in all aspects of society. The event, featuring Member of Knesset Yuli Edelstein, was one of many Israeli acknowledgements of the importance in building infrastructure for people with disabilities. Although many of Israel’s arts and cultural venues are not accessible, this is changing as Israel renovates its older buildings and becomes better informed of the special needs of many of its citizens.

Israel’s recent years have shown a plethora of legislation and regulations that set “international standards for equality, full participation, inclusion, and integration in society, accessibility, and autonomy of people with disabilities”. The Israeli Defense Forces works with people with physical disabilities who want to serve in the army as volunteers, like Captain Yehonatan Cohen who is bound to a wheelchair due to Cerebral Palsy and earned distinguished positions in the Education Corps, an Intelligence unit, and the Spokesperson’s Unit.

There is still much to be done to make Israel a more accessible country, but Perlman’s passion and investment are sure to make its mark and lead the way toward superior and dignified access for all.

Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.